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One Conservative Parent’s Thoughts on School Choice

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This is a very long, but very important post. I hope you will read and consider it as our current legislative session rolls forward. Yes I wrote it.

Most of you know my political leanings. I’m not shy about sharing them. Most of you are shocked when you hear me say I am against school choice. I want to first say that this is a political issue only because it has been made one. In reality, it is a family issue, a parent issue, and most importantly a child issue. That is what matters and it matters far more than politics.

In it’s current form – or at least the form that is being bantered about in Texas in recent days, ESA (or voucher) funds would be used to provide money to charter schools, private schools and even some homeschoolers. These funds would be derived from public money – your tax dollars. There is, theoretically, a limited amount of tax dollars available to entities for the public good. ie: hospital districts, school districts etc. They operate under budgets constrained by the amount of tax money they have available to them.

Some people want to divvy these funds up, taking them away from public schools and redistribute them to private entities for the purpose of educating kids. On the surface this sounds like a phenomenal idea. Maybe some underprivileged kids could go to private schools. Maybe we can have great charter schools in our communities that will do a better job than the public schools. And even homeschoolers could afford to spend more on curriculum and online education, or hire private teachers with that money. Admittedly there are some low performing public schools, so privatizing schools will force them to compete for students, thereby shutting down the bad schools, and providing alternatives. Please bear with me here, I really want you to understand why so many think this is a great idea. It all sounds wonderful.

Before we go on – please name any instance in history where acceptance of money from the government (dug directly out of taxpayer’s pockets) has not been accompanied with strings or conditions. It does not exist. There is no free government money without restrictions, rules or regulations. Even the money you overpay to the IRS has some condition attached in that you must file a return to get it back. They don’t just hand it back willingly.

Let’s talk about charter schools first. There are some great charter schools. Now suppose that those charters will accept vouchers or ESA funds. Now they are subject to additional rules, regulations and restrictions. What might those strings look like? Limits on curriculum choices for one. Subjecting of charter students to whatever standardized testing the government deems best, and a school grading/rating system for another. STAAR. Sound familiar yet? Salary caps on teachers, excess administrative personnel. Charter schools – even the best charters with the greatest of intentions – would soon start to be just like the public schools we already have. If you love your charter school, you do not want school choice. You want it left alone. So now charter schools have rapidly narrowing profit margins. Eventually charters will begin to go belly up, as regulations increase overhead and decrease profit margins. How will that benefit our kids, or education or the public at large? And how will it benefit the taxpayers who are funding all of this? Are we to bail out these private entities with more tax dollars?

Private schools will not be left out of the red tape either. They don’t have to take the ESA funds – at least not now. EEOC, ACLU, et al will likely come into play at some point, how could they not? The funds are government funds after all. Someone is bound to deem themselves slighted. You have chosen a private school in keeping with your families religious or cultural beliefs. You have paid dearly in tuition and fees, it would be great to have some help with that. But now your carefully chosen private school will be limited to certain curriculums, chosen by the government of course. Add STAAR testing or some iteration of it to that formula. And now what of the separation of state and religion? Here we go again. Furthermore, what family who can’t afford a $16,000 a year private school can now afford it on $3000.00 to $4800.00 in voucher or ESA funds?

Homeschool? Many families do it successfully if not exceptionally well. The Texas State Homeschool Association won’t tell you this as they jump through the hoops of school “choice”, but homeschool families do NOT want government controls, interference or regulation. And the majority of them don’t want voucher or ESA funds either. The tax money paid into schools that they don’t use is frequently thought of as “just leave me alone” money. They don’t have it back now, they don’t want it back later. They simply want to be left alone to keep doing what they are doing. They do not want the state’s involvement and resultant oversight of home education. They do not want any infringement upon a child’s right to learn in a way that works for THAT child. They don’t want anyone to step on their rights to teach their kids whatever they darn well please, without the interference of entities who have no real interest in their kids or families. Furthermore, is 4k in voucher funds the deal breaker in being able to not work so you can homeschool? There are many families who do both successfully.

So lets say this all passes, and that the ESA or voucher system is a great success. We have kids learning great things in charter schools and private schools, homeschool families are scoring great on those tests. Are those charter and private and home schools required to provide special education services? If so, to what percentage of their students? At what cost? Who bears the additional cost? What if the charter (and only) school close to you can’t provide the special education services your child needs? What if the nearest one that can, is 48 miles away? Rationing special education services worked well for kids in Houston, no? So many great charters though. Specialized schools like Winston or Shelton school are only 20k a year – give or take a few thousand. Well there are so many great charter schools that your local public elementary school is now down to 72 students on campus. All in special education programs. Mainstreamed. Like a boss.

If you have not figured it out by now, I am pretty straight forward about it. I am a very conservative leaning libertarian for the most part. That means I want less government involvement in my life wherever I can get it. I find it absurd that our Republican representatives are making this a hill to die on. What part of being a true conservative involves redistributing our money and turning it into other people’s money in a card game? I am still trying to figure that one out. It has the very smelly appearance of a sham that results in the hiding or transfer of tax dollars under the tables of private entities without transparency or accountability.

Why do I care about public schools? If I am so libertarian, why do I care at all about public education? Why should the state even be allowed to educate kids at all? Less government, right? So let’s say the entire public education system – including current charters and public schools, shut down tomorrow. Would people just stop educating their children? There would be some period of chaos and confusion. Some kids would fall through the cracks for certain. But at some point, communities would work together to come up with their own solutions. It would happen. Eventually. How does that serve our kids now though? Oh – and does that mean they will then give us back our tax money? They will. Right?

I can go all the way to the conspiracy theories – Bill Gates, Pearson and the rest. It’s a conspiracy to make society obedient, dumb, dependent blah blah blah. Honestly, if we allow school choice to weasel its way in, in the way it appears to be planned, none of that will matter. What will matter is the absolute and total loss of parental input into the education of our children. Our school rating system and STAAR testing is already a glaring case of the emperor’s new clothes. Parents are beginning to remember THEY have control of their kids – they are waking up. It appears at this point however many of our legislators are resolutely and deliberately blind to these issues. They are doing a great job of creating the biggest elephant in a room I have ever seen. They are choosing instead to focus on the diversion of school “choice” instead of focusing on fixing the things that are actually wrong with our public schools. And data collection on our kids, social emotional learning… I could write an entire OTHER diatribe on these issues but they aren’t what we need to address right now. By pouring the concrete foundation first, those things get eliminated on their own, for lack of merit.

School choice is a misnomer because it is not choice at all – it is more control and intrusion in schools, it is the definancing and debasing of the public school system. It is the dumbing down of the kids in our society who most need to NOT be dumbed down. It is the overarching infiltration, like a cancer, of common core and agendaized education. There is nothing Grassroots about this school choice movement, don’t be fooled. It is being heavily funded by the entities who have a stake in getting their hands on your tax money – YOUR KIDS education money. I don’t know of any better way to say it than that. And for those who are proponents of this “free market” school “choice” solution – how is anything that the government or tax dollars is involved in, a free market, ever?

If you know me, you also know that I don’t mind speaking up about a problem, call it griping if you will. If I gripe about a problem, I also like to propose solutions. So let’s think about this. What could be the fallout if we did the following instead?

– Find a way for public schools within a district and neighboring districts, to compete against each other based on types of curriculum, innovative course offerings, sports or other activities limited to this school or that school. (Does every high school need a drama department?) and gasp – yes – even test scores and graduation rates. A real, validated, proven and experienced test like the IOWA test – not STAAR.

– Do away with federal funding in Texas schools. It is 9% of the budget. It is 100% handcuffs.

– Do away with most standardized testing – this would eliminate the need for the federal handcuff money

– LET TEACHERS TEACH. Teachers are the trained and experienced experts in this equation. Administrators and self-important small time politicians are not. Great teachers do not need a standardized test to know where their students are and what they need – this is even more true when you have smaller classes

– Privatize extracurricular activities and sports. Seems the YMCA and the local leagues are pretty good at that. Let’s let them do it. We don’t really need more coaches or million-dollar football stadiums. We need more teachers. Let’s get our priorities straight. Sell bonds to pay for those things if the place you live desires to do it. But the schools and taxpayers don’t need to fund the rest of the infrastructure and equipment. Not every sport needs to be select or elite either. What happened to fun? Teamwork? Camaraderie?

– Cut down class sizes. Send early elementary kids to class for half a day instead of all day so there can be classes of 10 or 12 kids instead of 22? Or 28, or… 30? In any case, the schools should be focused on education, not on providing taxpayer funded daycare. Schedule high school classes like college classes. There can still be afterschool care programs for parents who work, but kids should have time to be kids. More recess, fewer worksheets.

– Toss the TEA out on it’s ear. defund it, unlegislate it, sundown it, whatever it takes. Leave school districts alone to choose their curriculum and manage their affairs. After all, if they have to compete with bordering or neighboring districts, they will find a way to perform and be cost effective about it. They won’t survive if they don’t. Understandably, some will need some help to do so, and there should be a way to do that, but there should not be endless funding of nepotism, corruption or negligence. A little more stand and deliver, on all levels, a little less pomp, would go a long way towards improving the real foundations of our public schools.

– On the stand and deliver note – give teachers the tools, resources and backing they need to be THAT kind of teacher. There are a lot of them out there. It is the reason why they teach. They can’t be THAT teacher when their hands are tied and test scores are being held over their heads.

In Texas – we already have school choice. We can charter, public, private or home school without anybody telling us which of them we are required to do, and we can currently do it without a lot of government interference. The current public school system has been strangled by over regulation and the handing over of tax money to corporations who provide NO benefit to kids or education. Why do we want MORE of that? Without school “choice”, charters can be free to do what they do, private schools can carry on in private, and homeschoolers can do as they please. Parents can choose for their children whatever they think best. That is true choice. I don’t stand for “School Choice”. I stand for freedom.

PS. I am not a teacher or school administrator, I am a nurse practitioner and I am not employed in education. I am a mother of 5 kids, 4 of whom went to public schools and 1 of whom is home schooled. I have 2 grandchildren in public schools. My interest is personal, not political.

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